Elizabeth Gilbert is on Substack, and I follow her. Best known for her breakout novel, Eat, Pray, Love, she’s a journalist, speaker, and writer. Her Substack is called Letters From Love and more than ten thousand subscribe.
Letters From Love is the most uncomfortable Substack I read. I write that statement with wry humor. The premise is writing love letters to oneself.
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When I first came across it, I was equally horrified and attracted. I poked around, reading here and there, and realized quickly Elizabeth and I share certain experiences. I already knew this, because years ago I came across her brilliant piece on tribal shaming, which I immediately blogged about.
It takes one to know one.
When I found Gilbert on Substack I subscribed, so her newsletter comes regularly into my Inbox. Sometimes I ignore it for days, but sooner or later I open it and read. She posts love letters she’s written to herself. Publicly! She also has a podcast, does interviews, and posts love letters others have written to themselves.
I can’t help but notice my violent reactions. Me being me, I don’t choose to turn away and read something more comfortable. I have questions. What is my deal? I’ve been working for more than ten years on self-care and self-love, on reparenting myself and healing old trauma. Why am I not delighted with the idea of a practice of writing love letters to myself?
My first reaction is to crawl through the screen and beg her not to expose herself like this. Beg them all not to expose themselves. Don’t they understand how dangerous it is? Haven’t they learned that a display of this kind of vulnerability will attract destroyers with stones and blades and (worst of all), terrible, terrible words of contempt? Oh, and don’t forget lethal indifference.
(If you’re not paying attention, I’ve now told you everything you need to know about the way I grew up.)
Except clearly the sky is not falling. More than ten thousand people are reading Gilbert’s love letters, and she goes on writing and publishing. The discussions within her community are neither indifferent nor contemptuous. On the contrary, they’re supportive and tender.
Which leads me to conclude my red alert reaction is about me rather than the practice of writing love letters to oneself.
How can they do this? I wondered.
Could I do this?
No, no, no, not to publish! I reassured myself. Just for me. Like my journal. My eyes only. A delete key. No one ever needs to know.
But there was a problem. Elizabeth writes to herself with endearments. Creative, funny, quirky endearments, like “my glinting little piece of foil from a gum wrapper.”
OK, now that’s fun! Words are so much fun!
What kind of endearments would I address myself with?
I’ve had pet names for my kids and my animals. No one else, really. Certainly not myself. My tone with myself has mostly been the harsh, hectoring, contemptuous, cold voice I internalized from the adults around me as a child.
But, words … If I had a child just like the child I was, what endearments would make her giggle and feel loved and seen?
So I started a list of whimsical endearments. A very private list. So don’t ask! I was a little ashamed of myself, but no one else need ever know …
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The list was fun, because it was a creative exercise. I can do creative exercise. It occurred to me part of my resistance to love letters (either giving or receiving) has to do with my disbelief in words. (Ironic.) Words can say anything. People say anything. The proof is in action. The older I get, the less interested I am in words, and the less I believe them. Demonstrate. Act. Show me, don’t tell me. As I’ve worked to heal I’ve developed routines for self-care, for eating well, for exercise, for sleep, for writing. I’ve been successful, and take much better care of myself than I ever have before. I take better care of myself than anyone ever has before, in fact.
But I haven’t written love letters to myself. I would have told you I could do so, if I wanted to. If I thought they’d have value. If I thought I’d believe them …
I grew up with emotional withholding. I’ve believed I’ve broken that pattern with my own children and my loved ones, including my animals. But now I wonder. Isn’t demonstration of love with no words a little sterile? I know the mixed message of loving words and abusive actions is devastating. Is active demonstration of love without words also confusing? Am I withholding from myself? Obligation, responsibility, duty – all these I’m very good at. But those are stony words. Where is the tenderness, the humor, the generosity? How about compassion? I feel those for others. I’ve spoken them from the heart; written love poems, love letters, notes, and cards – for others. Could I learn to feel and express them for myself?
Then I got sick with COVID, the events of the last couple of years (traumatic, protracted move; my mother’s decline and death) caught up with me, and I felt miserable. At once, I began putting pressure on myself to get back to writing, get back to work, get back to exercise, take out the trash, do the shopping, and generally pull myself together, because, after all, the world is full of bleeding, suffering people and I have a good life, a privileged life, and don’t deserve to feel sorry for myself and be lazy.
Not a love letter, in other words.
In the middle of the week during which I sat on the couch, alternately shivering and burning and blowing my nose, I wrote myself a love letter.
Well, maybe a let’s-see-if-I-can-tolerate-you letter.
It was an extremely strange experience. In fact, it made me cry, which didn’t help my congestion. Or my cough. At the time I had no sense of taste or smell, and I reflected that it was like that. When I tried to turn toward myself with love, tenderness, affection, whatever you want to call it, there was nothing. Just … nothing. A thick, numb shell between me and myself.
It made me so sad. Immediately upon the heels of that, I was ashamed. Because, you know, self-pity.
Almost as bad as self-love.
Wait now, what?
It’s bad to love yourself … if you don’t deserve it.
And, readers, I thought I’d left that belief far behind in the dust.
Then I began to feel angry, and I told myself I was going to start practicing writing love letters to myself. Because I deserved and deserve love as much as anyone else. I’m not important enough to be the most loathsome person in the world.
- How does the idea of this practice make you feel? Can you write a love letter to yourself? With endearments and everything?
- If you could write a love letter to yourself, how would you feel about making it public?
- What do you most need to hear from someone who loves you? Would it have power if you wrote it to yourself?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
In January, my brother and I traveled to Colorado to transition our mother into memory care.
As some of you know and many can imagine, a journey into dementia is an unsettling one on good days, by which I mean relatively calm days. On bad days, days of panic and confusion, days of anger and restlessness, it’s heartbreaking.
One of the greatest challenges for me is the chaos of my jostling feelings, all mobbed together and struggling for attention. I can’t feel everything at once, and I can’t focus on one thing at a time. One minute I’m entirely relieved because I know she’s in a safe, protected environment being well cared for, which has not been the case for the last ten years. Knowing she was living alone, driving, walking her dogs, and slowly losing her ability to function and manage her own life and I could do nothing about it took a daily toll.
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The next minute empathy and compassion overwhelm me and I’m reminding myself to maintain boundaries. She is not me. I am not her. My attention needs to be on taking care of my own feelings. If I could have effectively helped and supported her, I would have started doing it when I was five years old. I never found a way because there is no way.
Then I’m angry. Angry because I tried to avoid this particular outcome. Angry because she wouldn’t help herself when she had the ability to. Angry because I’m still in the position of parenting and taking care of my parent, which has always been the case. Angry about her suffering and confusion, and mine.
At the end of every conversation we have on the phone, I tell her I love her. It’s true. I have always loved her, but was not allowed to say so. She would ignore such a statement, or dispute it. She says it back to me now. It always makes me a little bit mad. It was a thing she would not say outright before. She’d sign herself “Love, Mom,” but she wouldn’t say it. She’s not a person who offers or accepts any kind of touch. Does she really love me, or is she merely participating in the familiar ritual of the exchange? Did she feel it all along but couldn’t say it?
Even before her dementia onset, Mom wouldn’t have answered these questions. I will never know.
I’m also sad. It’s not a sobbing, tearing grief, but a gentle, diffuse one, like watching a teabag steep in hot water and gradually turn it into tea. I don’t feel it all the time. There’s resignation in it, and acceptance, and surrender.
Mom is receiving palliative care under a local hospice organization. They recommended a book to me, titled The 36-Hour Day, by Mace and Rabins. I bought a copy. It was hard to read because it stirred up uncomfortable feelings, but it’s also a goldmine of information, including the latest research and standards for dementia care. It’s enormously validating. I read about specific behaviors and the stages of dementia and realize I have been struggling with Mom’s gradual disintegration for years. Nobody else saw it, so I was alone with my fears and concerns, but I knew she was slipping and I suspected this time was coming.
What I was most hoping for from the book was a script for dealing with difficult questions and conversations. I have some professional experience with dementia and am comfortable with refraining from using logic or trying to bring anyone back to reality. Mom has always believed entirely in her narratives, which often were distorted, paranoid, and inaccurate, so I have a long and painful history of managing her stories and beliefs. However, now the briefest conversation is fraught with pitfalls I don’t know how to respond to or address. I spend a lot of time on pause, frantically trying to figure out the best way to engage with her.
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The book didn’t give me a script, per se. What it gave me was a simple strategy for everything: reflect and validate feelings. Not the stories (thoughts), but the feelings. Emotional intelligence strikes again.
This was good news for me because I’m highly emotionally intelligent, even in this difficult personal context. I know how to recognize, name, and manage feelings. On the other hand, it seems like so little to offer. It’s hard to provide comfort in the context of dementia. Language feels pointless. Nonverbal communication is useless over a long distance and, in this case, in person. Mom has flinched away from me too many times for me to even think about touching her. On the phone, all I have is language. Following my impulse to reassure, to explain, to provide some kind of structure, only makes things worse for both of us. I measure my effectiveness by the level of her distress, which is eerily like measuring my effectiveness by the degree to which I can please her. Even that may not be accurate. Mom’s distress has always been extreme in the face of boundaries, limitations, the word “no,” and any questioning of her particular narratives and beliefs. It’s a personality trait having nothing to do with me personally. The mere fact of her feeling confined (which is accurate) may be the root of her distress rather than anything I’m saying or doing. Or not saying or not doing.
It occurs to me feelings live inside the just-born infant. Maybe before that. Certainly, we experience feelings long before we master language. I’m realizing intellect, logic, language, can all fall away at the end of life, too, but the feelings remain. I assume our need to be heard and validated remains.
Conversation with Mom is like wandering blind through a meadow filled with rabbit holes. Dementia is at once simple and extremely complicated. I never know how she will be or what she will say next. Sometimes she sounds down and depressed. Sometimes cheerful. Sometimes calm. Once she even told me she was “content,” a word I’ve never associated with her before. Sometimes she’s anxious, sometimes angry, sometimes groggy and hardly responsive.
When we talk, I work to set aside (temporarily) my own feelings, thoughts, memories, expectations, and predictions. I ask her how she is and listen to her response, looking for the feelings. When she tells me she needs to leave there because “everybody steals,” I sidestep the stealing accusations and acknowledge it must be an uncomfortable and discouraging way to live, and I can understand why she doesn’t like it. She perseverates on this theme off and on, and I enlarge on how difficult the feeling of losing things is, how unsettling to not be able to find our possessions. After all, she’s lost her whole previous life. Her feeling of loss, of things missing, is based in reality. On the other hand, her paranoia and fear of people (including me) stealing money from her was in place long before her dementia. I was never able to persuade her they did not reflect reality. I certainly can’t do it now.
Reflecting and validating her feelings back to her feels inadequate. It even feels condescending. But there’s nothing else I can do, nothing else to say. Witnessing her feelings is all I have left.
And, after all, maybe that’s a lot. We’re not very skilled with feelings in this culture. It’s not easy to find someone who will just listen without trying to fix or solve. Perhaps great healing lies in being heard with nothing added. I hope so.
Another constant theme is one of buying a car and going shopping when we visit. When I ask her what she needs, she can’t tell me. She needs “things.” When I ask her if she’s started a list, she never has. We are not sure she can read or write anymore. I realized when we went out to move her and worked in her house she’s a shopper. She has enough clothing for three women. Her closets were filled with shoes, both old and worn and newer. She had six or seven open bottles and jars of the same products. Her cupboards were packed with supplements and vitamins for both herself and the animals, many of them outdated. As her confusion grew, it appears she self-soothed by shopping and receiving packages in the mail. So, we talk about how much fun it is to take a day and shop for this, for that. We talk about having new things, buying special gifts for ourselves. She doesn’t want to make a list and have someone else get her what she needs. She wants to go on her own and play, buy what she wants, choose what she wants. She wants to feel free, independent, and empowered to give herself that.
She cannot understand that’s no longer possible. Even if she could, the feeling of wanting what she once had would likely persist. It breaks my heart.
Photo by Gemma Chua Tran on Unsplash
I have feelings, too. I turn to journaling, to writing. I’ve tried without success to find support groups in my area; then I found a mental health professional experienced in family trauma to speak with. I talk with Mom’s hospice team regularly; having worked for hospice, I know they want to support the whole family system. I extend to myself all the gentleness, support, and patience I extend to Mom. I hold my thoughts loosely and hug my feelings. They need comfort. They need expression. I think about boundaries and regulate my empathy. I’m newly appreciative of my own freedom and independence. I look for reasons to laugh, reasons to smile. I look for ways to connect to others. I intend to learn to receive as well as I give.
As I write this, an exuberant spring wind blows outside, pushing snow off roofs, tangling our wind chimes, shaking the lilac branches with their new, hard buds. One of the cats is stretched out on my desk in the sun. My desk calendar was in his way, so he kicked it off with his back feet. A glass paperweight pins down a card for Mom, the envelope addressed and stamped. Every Monday I put a card in the mail for her. I do it for me. She does not acknowledge them or remember receiving them. I hope they’re all displayed in her room, but I don’t know. I’m not sure she can read them. I imagine a staff person or hospice team member reading them to her. I’m not sure she can connect them with me at all. But it makes me feel better to make the gesture, and I enjoy picking out cards I think she’ll like. I’ll write a couple of lines about the weather, about the moment, about spring. I’ll sign it with the word love. I’ll put it in the mailbox and raise the flag, and the mail carrier will take it in an hour or so.
Feelings are pure. Feelings are simple. It’s our thoughts about our feelings that fester, tangle, entrap us. I want to soothe uncomfortable feelings, make the pain stop, dry the tears, turn aside the rage. All my life it’s been my role to take care of Mom, fix whatever was going wrong. I still feel her emotional dependence. I still feel the responsibility to solve every problem for her.
But Mom has traveled now to a place I can’t go and she can’t come back from. She can’t follow me, clutching at my clothing, needing, wanting, pleading, demanding, rejecting. I can’t walk beside her in a way she recognizes. We have separated. I am relieved. I am absolved. I grieve for her anguish. Witnessing her feelings without taking action to assuage them is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done in a lifetime of hard things in caring for her.
But I cannot fix this. Neither of us can go back. There’s only feeling our way forward.
- What has been you experience, if any, with dementia in a loved one or family member?
- What are your thoughts and feelings about hospice care?
- What’s the hardest thing for you in supporting an elderly loved one?
- Do you worry about developing dementia yourself? Have you made a plan?
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.
The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.
Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:
Here in the Mountains
There is one memory deep inside you.
In the dark country of your life
it is a small fire burning forever.
Even after all these years
the embers of what you have
known rest contented
in their own warmth.
Here in the mountains,
tell me all the things
you have not loved.
Their shadows will tell you
they have not gone,
they became this night
from which you drew away in fear.
Though at the trail’s end,
your heart stammers
with grief and regret,
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.
My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.
Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.
But I thought about things I have not loved.
It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash
And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.
I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.
I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.
I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.
I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.
I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.
And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.
Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash
It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.
The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.
- Share three things you have not loved.
- Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
- What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
Except I’m not. Balancing, I mean.
A few weeks ago I came across a quote: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.” Backtracking through multiple sources, I ran it down to a woman named Jamie Anderson who wrote it in her blog, which is now gone. The quote went viral.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
It hit me right in the heart.
I’ve written previously about my struggle with intense love that is not received. I don’t mean unrequited romantic love. I mean flesh-and-bone love, blood love, the helpless love and connection we feel for family.
My strategy all my life has been to divert the love I feel but can’t give to the intended recipient (at least not in a way I feel they receive and believe in it or even want it) to others who do need and want it. This practice relieves some of the pressure in my heart, but there are several ways it can go badly wrong. Plenty of people in the world will suck up all the love, attention, and support we give them, but have no thought, or perhaps no ability, of returning it. In this case, my painful, overfull heart becomes withered and empty and I have to detach the vampire I’ve attracted.
I’m not looking for a place to dispose of my love like it’s a worn-out sock. I’m looking for a place where it does some good. Because that’s at the heart of feeling love one can’t give – the futility of it. What’s the point of love if we have no place to give it, if love has nowhere to go?
There are places where I feel my love has been useful. Animals. Children. Hospice work. Emergency rescue work. But, aside from animals and my own children, none of these are intimate relationships sustaining me day-to-day. Animals, sadly, have shorter lifespans than we do. Children, inevitably, grow up and find their own lives, which may or may not include us.
I’ve been thinking about this quote for several weeks, intending to blog about it at some point, but always turning away from it into other subjects. It hurts to think about it. I know intellectually writing about pain helps, but loyalty to those who refuse my love stops me. Or maybe shame? Or maybe guilt? (If a family member won’t accept our love, surely the logical conclusion is we’re a terrible person?) Also, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or be unfair, or humiliate another person.
I can always find something to write about. I’ve been posting weekly for six years. But there’s much I do not write about. Too painful. Too intimate. Too risky. Too messy.
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Sometimes life is like a boxing match. I have good stamina, and I’m dogged as hell. I’m organized and efficient. I try to think clearly about my choices. I’m thoughtful. But every now and then life knocks me down. Hard.
Usually I cope with vigorous exercise, writing, getting a good night’s sleep, and processing with a friend. I get back on my feet and keep going.
But every few years the blows keep coming, hard and fast, unexpected hooks and jabs.
This has been one of those times. I’m nursing my third upper respiratory infection in four weeks. Not COVID, but one of the many other plagues circulating this fall. I’ve once again pulled out the essential oil, the powdered vitamin C, the elderberry and echinacea tea, the nasal spray, the cough and cold medicine. I don’t usually take medication of any kind, but on this third round I feel so bruised and battered I’m choosing to. I’m tired out.
In between this virus, which arrived Thursday night, and the last one, which departed Monday, we discovered our dirt-floored cellar was ankle deep in water due to several inches of recent rain which caused some flooding. It’s going to take more than a thousand dollars to fix it.
Then, yesterday (Can it only be yesterday? It feels like weeks.) I was informed about the illness and injury of a family member, one of those people I love most in the world who is unable to receive it and has amputated me from their life. Now, a long way away from me as I sit here in Maine with a Kleenex box, another family member (another of my dearly loved ones) is carrying the whole situation on their shoulders: the hospital, surgery, legalities, finances, paperwork. My presence would only exacerbate the situation and make everything worse. I know it. The family member managing the crisis knows it.
So here I sit, wretched, broke, sick, and I can do nothing – nothing. A lifetime of petrified love weighs like a stone in my chest. It has nowhere to go. It never has. It’s not useful. It’s not wanted. But I can’t stop feeling it. It’s part of me.
And I’m down for the count. I’m all the way down and nothing in me is ready to get back up. My eyes are swollen. I can’t stop crying. I don’t know where the cold begins and the grief ends. All this grief, a lifetime of grief. It feels endless, bottomless. I don’t think there are enough tears in the world to wash it away. I can do nothing but wait for news and try to be a long-distance support to the one who will accept my support. I can’t seem to get and stay well. I can’t fix the cellar. A plumber in hip boots with a new sump pump will do that early next week.
How can the truest, deepest love we feel be refused and rejected?
Rhetorical question. I don’t expect an answer. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever asked that question. Some things just can’t be understood. They’re not fair. They’re not explicable. They’re just life. I learned some time ago to cease arguing with what is.
And what is, right now, is grief. I can’t contain it, control it, avoid it, distract myself from it. I won’t share it, except in words. I’m simply letting it wash through me, surrendering to it. Maybe that’s what I need most today. Maybe the laundry, emptying the trash (all that soggy Kleenex), my usual weekend posting and publishing, raking leaves, dumping the compost, washing dishes, and all the rest of it doesn’t matter. Maybe I can’t get back on my feet until I’ve chosen to just stay down first.
How long do we have to cry to drain a lifetime of grief?
Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
This is not my usual kind of post, but it is a stay down, raw, naked one. It’s what I’ve got this week. It’s the best I’ve got.
On another note, I am expanding the site. I’m adding excerpts from my books to The Webbd Wheel page. Scroll down past the overview for the excerpts. If you’re intrigued, you can go to my Substack page and read for free as I serial publish my fiction. You’ll find extensive archives, so you can read from the beginning if you wish.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
I’ve been sick for the last week. Not COVID, just a heavy cold, likely acquired from one of my giggling, spluttering, young swim students.
To be sick is to be in an alternate reality. Life goes on outside my windows. The neighbors come and go. The mail comes. They’ve been paving streets in the neighborhood. It’s rained. I’ve watched leaves falling and wished I felt well enough to go out and rake them into my garden beds. I’ve missed being out in the world. I’ve missed work. I’ve missed my friends. I’ve missed swimming and exercising.
Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash
I’ve had a lot of time to read, and to think. I follow a writer on Substack, Jessica Dore. She writes about the Tarot, myth, and story, and I rarely read her without new insight and perspective on my own work in these subjects. In one of her recent posts, she explores an old story dealing with wounds, suggesting there may be wisdom in “letting the wound live.” Culturally, we are focused on healing, on fixing, on freeing ourselves and others from pain. Allowing wounds to stay open is a challenging and uncomfortable idea, but some part of me senses wisdom may indeed lie within it.
I’ve been thinking about letting wounds live as I surrender to whatever virus is operating in my system right now. Not thinking logically and linearly, but allowing it float and drift through my mind, making tenuous connections with other things I’m reading, old memories, half-waking dreams as I cat nap on the couch.
Another idea I’ve come across lately is turning weaknesses into strengths. This is my favorite kind of alchemy. I’ve always considered my wounds to be weaknesses. Could they be strengths?
We moved in May, and I’m still figuring out how best to fit my furniture into my space. I bought myself a badly-needed new mattress and a high bedframe to hold it. High because I have no closet in my bedroom and I want to store clothes under my bed. Love the mattress, love the frame, but the bed is now so high (I feel like the princess and the pea on top of twenty mattresses!) my bedside table is ridiculously low and inadequate. I had to lean out of bed to use it.
I have a tall wicker basket with a hinged lid. When I was a child my brother and I used it as a laundry hamper. I’ve taken it with me from place to place all my life. It’s the perfect height for my bedside table, nice and roomy on top, storage inside.
I have an old wound connected with that basket.
When I was about nine years old we lived in a big house in the Colorado Mountains in a very small town. My brother and I had a playroom, a bedroom each, and a bathroom downstairs in the finished basement. The wicker hamper lived in our bathroom next to the tub/shower.
I was a fearful child, terrified of the dark, constantly anxious, with a vivid (fervid?) imagination. One evening I went in the bathroom, shed my dirty clothes and put them in the hamper, and took a bath. All was well (what’s better than a hot bath and a book?) until the tub was filled and I turned the water off.
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The hamper creaked. Then it cracked. Then it skritched. Long silences in between noises. I had never noticed this before, and I was immediately terrified. All the unnamed, half-understood fears in my young heart coalesced into the utter certainty there was a monster in that hamper, and my life depended on escaping its notice.
I froze, my book clutched in my fingers. I didn’t dare read because I was afraid of the whisper of turning a page. I didn’t dare move. The door was closed. My parents were far, far away upstairs. I got cold, and then colder. Reaching for the hot water tap was out of the question. I’d have died first.
The hamper creaked, and cracked, and skritched.
Eventually, what seemed like hours later but was probably much less than that, although the water was unpleasantly cool by then, my mom came to check on me and found me there, fixed in place with a terror I could not adequately express. That was the problem. If I’d been able to talk about my fears they likely wouldn’t have been so overwhelming.
I’ve never forgotten that evening, and how real and visceral my terror was. I knew, I knew some dark and deadly horror crouched in that hamper, listening, scenting prey, slobbering, waiting to pounce. I knew there was no help for me. No one would hear. No one would protect me.
In spite of that old trauma, I’ve always loved the wicker hamper. It still creaks and cracks with temperature change and use, but it strikes me as friendly now, rather than sinister.
An old traumatic wound. It joined others wounds made by the claws of fear. I’ve written before about my fear of the dark, which haunted me for the first three decades of my life. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of scarcity. Fear of the adult world I could not possibly understand. Fear of abandonment.
Fear is an old and loyal companion.
How could it possibly be a strength? Surely nothing is quite so pathetically weak as constant fear?
As I was pondering this, I came across a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, translated by another of my favorite poets:
You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
so that no one sees you anymore.
But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight –
and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.
I have faith in the night.
Translated by David Whyte.
Rilke understood darkness. So does Whyte. Poets. Writers.
Writers like me.
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So much of my writing is about shadows and darkness, the hidden thing, the unspoken secret, the uncertain future, the truths nobody dares tell … until someone does. Someone like Pandora, who opened the box anyway. Someone who blows the whistle, blows the cover. Someone like Baba Yaga, or the child who said aloud, “the emperor had no clothes!”
I am surely not the only child of fear. Perhaps we all hold its hand, or perhaps some of us are more intimate with it than others. I don’t know. What I can sense is its paradoxical nature. Fear defines courage. How often does it define, at least in part, art? Think of Vincent Van Gogh, for example.
Fear defines courage. Yes. I believe that. Courage is strength. I believe that, too.
Then it must follow that fear is not weakness. Fear has wounded me, but it hasn’t made me weak. Rather the reverse.
If things had been different in my life, if I’d never felt the degree of fear I did and do, if somehow I’d found a way to heal myself of fear’s wounds and be free of it, I would not be the writer I am. I might still be a writer, a different kind of writer, but I would not have written The Webbd Wheel series or this blog.
All my work and much of my empathy are rooted in the compost of living, breathing, bleeding fear and the wounds it’s torn in my psyche. Fecund wounds. What a strange idea.
I leave you this week with a final thought from David Whyte:
… the place you would fall becomes
the place you are held.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
One of my favorite filters through which to make choices is the question: Who benefits if I do this? Who benefits if I don’t do this?
It’s a deceptively simple question on the surface. Most of the choices we make in an hour, a day, are unconscious. We don’t take the time to think about them. We go with our instinct or impulse, we take the path of least resistance, we default to our familiar routine, we choose the most comfortable thing. Pausing to think our choices through slows us down and makes us uncomfortable.
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Unconsciousness is so much easier!
Last week I wrote about making choices, paths and no-paths, trying to navigate my life journey according to what works best for me, makes me happiest, and creates a life true to my particular values rather than doing what everyone else seems to be doing and following the most trampled trails. You know a lot of trash gets left beside the most heavily used roads, right?
I make many choices out of fear. I suspect we all do, but I won’t presume to speak for anyone but myself. In fact, I’ve posted about fear-driven choices before on this blog, years ago. Interesting, how we can spiral around and around in life, going a little deeper with each iteration.
Let’s take, for an example of a fearful choice, our own personal economic situation, whatever it is. If we are afraid to keep our accounts balanced, budget, open our bills, call a plumber, or commit to some kind of savings account, who benefits? Seriously. It’s a real question. Who benefits when we avoid dealing with our financial situation?
Any lender or business entity who charges interest or late fees benefits. Our bank benefits in overdraft or returned payment charges. Capitalism benefits if we don’t manage our spending habits and can’t resist advertising. Nameless, faceless institutions and corporations benefit from our fear. It’s in their best interests to complicate, obfuscate, create pitfalls and loopholes, offer “deals” and “sales.”
Who benefits when we put off dealing with a frightening physical sign or symptom, or facing an addiction? Both situations have the potential to get much worse, more frightening, more deadly, more expensive. So who benefits when we choose to deny, avoid, ignore what’s happening?
Who benefits when we sabotage ourselves, when we don’t choose to live according to the highest expression of who we are? Who benefits when we silence ourselves or allow others to silence us? Who benefits when we refuse risk, vulnerability, passionate creativity, joy?
I have never made a fear-based choice that didn’t eventually come back around and bite me in the ass. Most of us know the feeling of “what was I thinking?” Making the easiest or most seductive choice in the moment can mean years of cleaning up consequences and eventually having to revisit the original choice point and try again, hopefully with more wisdom.
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And if we do circle back around, fear is still there. What if I get it wrong again? What if I fail? What if I can’t do this one thing I want to do more than anything else? What if the other kids laugh at me? What if I miss out on what everyone else is doing? What if this is my last chance?
“What if …” is nearly always the voice of fear, and it frequently stops me in my tracks. I can think of ten ways every choice might be the wrong one. All my demons throw a party and I’m stuck, locked in the bathroom without a friend or a way home while listening to them smash up the furniture..
Why do I make choices that benefit my fear? According to Oxford Online Dictionary, fear is a feeling arising from the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
A feeling arising from a belief. Contrary to the increasing fanaticism and extremism infecting our culture, a belief is not necessarily true. We can and do change our beliefs.
Belief is a choice.
As for the feeling of fear, we are psychobiologically wired to feel it because it’s a survival mechanism. Our ancestors felt it and effectively responded to it; if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here.
Feeling fear is not the tricky part. What we choose to do with the feeling is. Do we use it as the good tool it is, or do we let it stop us, take away our power, keep us imprisoned?
More than that, do we feed it? Do we choose to benefit it?
If we allow our fear to take over our lives, as opposed to harnessing it to keep ourselves whole and healthy, who benefits?
No one and nothing but our fear.
Do we want to benefit a feeling based on a belief?
When I look at the world around me, that seems like a dark, well-trodden path with a lot of trash left beside it. I don’t see that particular path leading to any true connection, opportunity, or healing.
It’s not what I want. It’s not what I choose to do.
There’s enough fear in the world without me adding to it or enabling it, even in my small sphere.
Fear is for taking immediate, life-saving action. Or for weighing the pros and cons of a risky activity or choice. Or for directing our attention to a potential threat, a real threat, like the stranger peering in our window, not a belief.
We can benefit from our appropriate response to fear. Let’s not allow fear, or anyone manufacturing it, to benefit from us.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.